The Face of the Past

The face of a Canarian woman who lived and died 1,400 years ago has been reconstructed by researchers at the Canarian Museum in Las Palmas, allowing us to look into the eyes of the island’s prehistoric past.

Until recently, skull number 977 was just one of hundreds of exhibits at the Canarian Museum. Discovered at the “fortress”, the highest point of the ancient Guanche settlement at Santa Lucía de Tirajana in Gran Canaria, the female skull has been carbon-dated to the 6th century, meaning that the woman it belonged to was among the earliest permanent residents of the Canaries.

It was this skull that researchers chose to reconstruct, using forensic evidence and knowledge from other burial sites or early written records to create a 3D model of the face and upper body of one of the original Guanche natives of the Canary Islands.

Gazing out at us from the past we see a woman aged between 25 to 30 years old – young by todays standards, but a ripe old age in the 6th century – with a broad nose, brown eyes and dark hair. Genetic analysis showed that the skull’s owner was 99% likely to have had dark colouring, and her skin colour is typical of North Africans.

The location of her burial site also offered clues to her identity. She was one of four skulls found at the highest point of the area many believe is the ancient temple of Humiaga, which also means that she was likely to have held fairly high status in her society. Nevertheless, her remains indicate that her life was far from easy.

Her skull shows that she lost several teeth throughout her life and the reconstruction shows that her face is slightly sunken and deformed as a result. Tooth decay was a fact of life for the Guanches, given their reliance on a high carbohydrate diet, and broken teeth were common as cereals were ground coarsely.

More disturbingly, the reconstruction has a scar and dent on the right side of her forehead, based on damage suffered by the skull. 20% of female Canarian skulls show evidence of serious head injuries, and the proportion is even higher in male skulls. In males, the fact that most injuries are on the left of the head has led researchers to speculate that various fighting rituals may have been the cause. In any case, the injuries in both sexes show that the violence was far from unknown in Guanche society.

The 3D reconstruction of the woman shows her with hair braids, based on remains found in other ancient burial sites, and her simple clothes are based on the earliest accounts of visitors to the islands.